Flight Club

Flight Club

Cooper's Hawk soars with a savvy food, winery and retail formula.

The “aha!” moment that sparked the Cooper's Hawk concept came to founder Tim McEnery during a winery visit. With dinner plans elsewhere to follow, the hospitality manager saw a missed opportunity with the absence of an on-site restaurant. A subsequent Internet search for “winery restaurants” turned up just two, and a concept was born.

That was the easy part. The time from hatching the idea to opening stretched out for four and a half years, marked by years of research and consultation with industry experts; financing rejections from a dozen lenders; and the requisite blood, sweat and tears that accompany a business startup. All the while, McEnery continued to log 60- to 80-hour weeks at his existing management job with Aramark, followed by a winery apprenticeship, where he was schooled in production and operations.

“I lived and breathed wineries and would wake up hours before going to my job to work on the business plan,” McEnery says. At night he'd make calls to potential investors while hammering out concept details. He eventually secured financing for the first and second stores by selling equity units, combined with a Small Business Administration loan.

In 2005 the first Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurant opened in Orland Park, IL, an upscale community 25 miles south of Chicago. Like every detail, the name was carefully considered: Cooper's Hawk is a bird indigenous to the Midwest, and a cooper builds wine barrels.

Cooper's Hawk offered a winning combination out of the gate: moderately priced, “modern casual” cuisine; a fun, nonintimidating wine experience; and savvy merchandising of its own wine and wine-related products, all presented in a hip, inviting space. It was popular from the start, McEnery recalls. “We had a good buzz before we opened due to the unique aspect of the concept, along with a good preopening newspaper article. I also grew up in the area, so we knew a lot of people who spread the word.”

Today, Cooper's Hawk has four Chicago-area units, with three to four more slated to open over the next 18 months in Illinois and adjacent states. The locations are new construction, 300-seat facilities with private party space and are characterized by rich mahogany furnishings, modern light fixtures and warm tones. Glass windows provide views of wine barrels stacked in the aging rooms. Tasting rooms offer guests a rotating selection of wines for sampling along a wooden counter.

More than Wine

While wine plays a key part in the concept, “food is the driver,” McEnery says. “We aren't a winery that happens to offer food. People go out to eat.” To that end, the contemporary-American menu, updated twice a year, strives to appeal to a broad customer base, with approximately 50 fresh-made appetizers, entrees and desserts. A variety of gluten-free dishes are available and some nights account for 20 percent of orders, McEnery says. Signature dishes include Pistachio Crusted Grouper, Red Wine and Mustard Short Ribs and Mexican Drunken Shrimp. Hand-crafted chocolate truffles, such as the Zinfandel-infused dark chocolate or white chocolate Chardonnay, along with cheesecake “lollipops,” are also available in the gift shop. Fittingly, Cooper's Hawk wine is a featured ingredient in sauces and glazes.

Bin numbers are listed next to each menu item to guide guests to their selection's ideal wine match. Besides running the entire wine production operation, winemaker Rob Warren oversees menu pairings.

The wine list features Cooper's Hawk's 48 wines by the bottle (prices range from $17-$35) as well as by the glass ($6-$11). Wine, beer and spirits account for 26.3 percent of total on-premises sales. “I believe the wines we produce are at a level that both the novice and sophisticated person would enjoy. A wine well made should satisfy both ends of the spectrum,” McEnery says.

The company produces more than 175,000 gallons of wine per year, and has earned more than 100 awards from local, national and international competitions. Refrigerated trucks packed with up to 20 tons of wine grapes and fruit from California, Oregon, Washington and Michigan are delivered from the vineyard to the central production facility, located close to the Orland Park restaurant. The facility currently is undergoing expansion to 40,000 square feet, which will help it accommodate year-round production (including bottling). The grapes are crushed and processed, then shipped to each of the four restaurant locations for aging in American, French and Hungarian oak barrels.

With approximately 125 employees at each unit, Cooper's Hawk last winter rolled out an extensive wine training program “which takes our coworkers through a journey about Cooper's Hawk wines, the world of wine outside of Cooper's Hawk and wine growing and production,” McEnery says. The staff attends daily, pre-service tasting sessions. Further education includes touring the wine production facility, day-long wine education courses and the option to prepare for the Master Sommelier Introduction Exam.

Creating a Value Proposition

How has Cooper's Hawk been able to not only survive, but thrive, in this brutal economy? “We're a value proposition tied to quality,” McEnery says. “Even in a recession, most people still have a few bucks, and we target those who want a good experience but also value and a unique concept.” The brand's appeal is broad, with a target market ranging from 21-65. “I think this is one of the biggest reasons for our success,” McEnery says. “We try to position ourselves as being a place for all types of people and all occasions. On a Saturday night you might see guests in suits, a family with kids and a group of guys in shorts, just off the golf course.” McEnery counts Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's and J. Alexander's among its competitive set.

The Cooper's Hawk wine club is another factor in its success, McEnery says. The club is the concept's main and only marketing effort outside of its website, phone book listings and off-site events. With more than 16,000 subscribers in 26 states, membership is available for $18.99 a month. Members receive one bottle per month that can be picked up at any Cooper's Hawk location (where, it is hoped, participants will stay to dine) or delivered for an additional fee. Classes, parties and events are additional benefits.

Cooper's Hawk reported 2009 system-wide sales of $24.4 million, with average unit sales of $6.1 million. Same-store sales for the first two units, which have a year-over-year history, were up 14.7 and 8.1 percent, respectively. Year-to-date same-store sales are up over 26 percent.

The newer locations are performing beyond expectations as well. Retail sales are key, McEnery says. On average, 20 percent of income comes from the retail operation — by design. Each unit dedicates roughly 1,500-2,000 square feet per unit to retail space.

A small venture capital deal combined with limited conventional financing funded stores three and four (opened in 2008). “We've recently closed a partnership with a private equity fund that will finance our next round of growth,” McEnery says.

Recalling the challenging early days, McEnery says: “Everything that had to be done after opening our first store was minor in comparison to trying to open a 13,000-square-foot restaurant with no net worth of your own. By far, that was the hardest step in our company's evolution.”

Moving forward, Cooper's Hawk will expand through company-owned stores, staying as close to home as possible in the near term. “We continue to search for additional Chicagoland locations while expanding our search to other Midwestern markets, including Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus and Minneapolis. We look at the opportunity, do our homework and off we go,” McEnery says.

The company's goals today differ from when McEnery started his journey, when he dreamed of 200 Cooper's Hawk stores throughout the country. “Then you're into it, and your house, life and finances and those of the people that trusted you are on the line. You go from thinking about taking over the world to not losing everything. Today, with more secure finances, a great team and a track record, we're reverting back to the ‘let's see what this thing can do’ plan.”